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The Way It Is/ Sharing some memories of Mt. Tremblant, a great Canadian road course, with Mario Andretti

by Gordon Kirby
This column originally ran a few months ago in my Inside Track slot on the Champ Car website. To those who read it there at the time, I make no apologies for kicking off the new year by once again posting this slightly re-written memoir about the fantastic Mt. Tremblant road course north of Montreal where Champ Car will race for the first time this year on July 1st, Canada's birthday--Dominion Day.

Many years ago, I covered quite a few races at Mt. Tremblant but have not been there in more than twenty years so it's one race I'm particularly looking forward to visiting this year. Before there was le circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal, there was the even more challenging and more scenic circuit Mt. Tremblant-St. Jovite in the Laurentian Mountains ninety miles north of Quebec's largest city. Opened in 1964, Mt. Tremblant was more often referred to in those days as St. Jovite, the name of another town equally close to the track. In September of 1966, St. Jovite hosted the very first CanAm race which won by John Surtees's factory Lola from the pair of factory McLarens driven by Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon.

The track also ran two Canadian Grands Prix in 1968 and ‘70, alternating with Mosport. Denny Hulme won for McLaren in 1968 with the team boss finishing second in a McLaren one-two after Amon's leading Ferrari broke. Two years later, Jacky Ickx won for Ferrari after Jackie Stewart gave the first Tyrrell F1 car a spectacular debut performance, leading the race until his engine blew.

In 1967 and ‘68, a pair of USAC Championship races were run at the demanding 2.65-mile track. Both events comprised twin, 100-mile races and were swept entirely by no less a man than Mario Andretti. The races were restricted to 100 miles because pitstops in the tight, narrow pitlane were deemed impossibly dangerous, and Andretti dominated USAC's two years in Quebec, winning both races in 1967 and repeating the feat in ‘68.

During the same era, Mt. Tremblant also ran a series of TransAm races with Mark Donohue and Roger Penske's fledgling team winning four straight from 1968-'71. There was plenty of Atlantic and Formula Ford racing at the track over the years, too, although the place was deemed too dangerous for F1 after 1970 and CanAm the following year. Fewer and fewer professional races took place at the track, although a Jim Russell race driving school thrived there for many years and club racing continued.

© Marc Sproule
Then six years ago the track was bought by Lawrence Stroll who has invested many millions in the place. Stroll has entirely repaved the circuit and now, of course, Stroll and will bring Champ cars back to Mt. Tremblant next summer. He's putting a further $5 million into improving the facility for Champ Car's debut event as the sanctioning body at the track. A couple of miles of catch-fencing is being installed, as well as some additional curbing and tire walls. And too, the paddock will be paved and two bridges will be built to provide access from infield to outfield.

For my part, I'm eagerly looking forward to the race because I spent some time covering races at Mt. Tremblant in the late sixties and early seventies and have many fond memories of the place. The track's first turn is a fantastic corner to drive through and to spectate from. Past the pits, the road descends slightly, then climbs to a blind brow as the road sweeps to the right and then dives steeply downhill through ‘the elevator', followed by a kink to the right into a blind, hard-braking area for the next set of corners. I recall many fine driving demonstrations through Mt. Tremblant's first corner and enjoy particularly sharp memories of Jo Siffert hurling a factory STP March 701 over the brow during the 1970 Canadian GP and Gilles Villeneuve performing an equally mouth-dropping rendition of the same act in a March 76B Atlantic car a few years later.

In fact, Gilles wrote-off a car at that corner in testing earlier in 1976 but he bounced back to win at Mt. Tremblant in July on his way to winning the first of two, back-to-back Atlantic championships. Gilles won nine Atlantic races in 1976, launching his legendary F1 career, and at Mt. Tremblant he beat arch-rival Tom Klausler after a fierce battle. Looking back, I feel fortunate to have witnessed some of Villeneuve's wins from those years, Tremblant ‘76 included.

I was also at Mt. Tremblant for both Canadian GPs run at the track and will always remember the opening laps of the 1968 race because it was the only time I ever saw a field full of high-winged race cars, many of them bi-planes. Every car was fitted with wings mounted high on slender pedestals, a practice that was banned after the following year's disastrous Spanish GP, and it was a spectacular sight to watch the field wailing into and over the diving first turn.

Another fine memory from that race was the amazing sounds generated by the Honda and Matra V-12 engines driven by the likes of John Surtees and Jean-Pierre Beltoise. Both of those engines made even Ickx and Amon's Ferrari V-12s sound pedestrian in comparison and could be heard all the way around the circuit from the farthest possible point.

Andretti didn't take part in the two F1 races at Mt. Tremblant, nor did he run any CanAm races at the track, so his sweep of the USAC races in 1967 and ‘68 were the only races he ran there. USAC ran twin, 100-mile races because the pitlane was so narrow and there was also a distinct turn halfway down the pitlane at the start/finish line. So refuelling was out. Even in those days, everyone agreed it would be too dangerous, particularly with the eighty-gallon tanks of the time. "The pits were just too tight for any pitstops," Mario recalls. "And of course, in those days you carried a lot of fuel."

Andretti rates Mt. Tremblant as one of the toughest racetracks he's ever seen. "I loved the layout," he comments. "It was one of the true, technically-challenging road courses. And of course, we had turbocharged engines and the throttle response was not all that great, but once those babies spooled-up, I mean you had wheelspin everywhere!

"It was a really interesting layout and in those days you accepted all the obstacles you could potentially encounter if you ever put a wheel off. I remember Al Unser said, ‘Boy if you put a wheel off, just on the shoulder, you'll knock the suspension off.' There were big rocks right there, just off the road, and no run-off at all. The place really was dangerous, but man, it was interesting! You really had to drive. There were some big elevation changes and some high speed corners where you had to be very precise.

"You did not dare put a wheel off the tarmac," Mario continues. "You did not dare do that. There was nowhere were it was forgiving. In that way, it was worse than a street course. On a street course you might bang a wheel, but there, you had no idea where you were going to go.

"I'm sure they've improved that a lot, but in those days you didn't even want to look at the side of the road. There were a couple of places, man! I remember Al Unser saying, ‘Have you really looked at what we could hit if you get off the road?' I said, ‘I don't want to look. I don't want to know.'."

In those days there was a sharp rise in the middle of the backstraight which saw its share of incidents over the years. The rise has since been reduced, but in practice for the first CanAm race back in 1966, both Paul Hawkins and Hugh Dibley flipped their cars after their machine's noses got light going over the brow. And a similar thing happened to Brian Redman in 1978 during practice for the first ‘new era' CanAm race. Hawkins and Dibley esaped unscathed from their flips, but Redman broke his neck and was in serious condition for quite some time.

"We used to jump through there," Andretti recalls about the two USAC races. "I'm not sure that we actually got airborne, but we sure as heck got very light through there."

One of the twin races in 1968 was run in the rain. What was it like? "It was something else!" Mario grins. "It was fun, I tell you. In the wet, we could get wheelspin in top gear! You had to really watch yourself. It was like driving on pins and needles. You really had to be delicate. There was no boost control or anything, and when the turbo came on, we were pulling some serious horsepower."

Andretti says he has nothing but good memories of Mt. Tremblant. "From my standpoint, you're only going to get accolades from me because when you win, no matter where you win, the memories are always pleasant and positive," Mario observes.

His only question about promoting a race at the track today concerns getting the crowd in and out of the track on the local two-lane roads. "The only problem I can see is the egress in and out of the place," he says. "Because of that, I'm not sure they can draw enough people to make sense financially. In those days, you really didn't worry about it. No matter where you went there were a lot of people. There was always a big line getting into the track and a big line leaving as well.

"And of course, the location and the area is just so beautiful," Mario adds. "It's one of those places where you would love to invite the sponsors because the natural beauty of the local surroundings is just gorgeous. So it's got a lot of appeal. I think it's got a lot going for it. I wish them well with the race next summer."

So too, do other old-timers like myself. As we all know, Champ Car must support the fine tradition of road racing in the United States and Canada, and I'm delighted to see that happening with longterm commitments to races at our greatest road courses like Road America and Mt. Tremblant. They are what this sport is all about.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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